Was Lowth a purist?

When I gave a presentation on my recently published book The Bishop’s Grammar (OUP, 2011) in Cambridge earlier this year, a member of the audience asked if Lowth was ever described as a purist. The only reference I could think of was from the book Language Change, Progress or Decay? by Jean Aitchison (1981 and later editions).

In her book, Aitchison writes that ‘the most notable’ eighteenth-century purist ‘was Robert Lowth, Bishop of London. A prominent Hebraist and theologian, with fixed and eccentric opinions about language, he wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) which had a surprising influence, perhaps because of his own high status … His grammar is bespattered with pompous notes in which he deplores the lamentable English of great writers. He set out to put matters right by laying down ‘rules’, which were often based on currently fashionable or even personal stylistic preferences’ (1981:23-4).

Myself, I’m not sure that Lowth was a purist. In my book, moreover, I present arguments to show that Lowth wasn’t even the prescriptivist that tradition has it. But what I would like to know is what the definition of “purist” is, and how purists compare with prescriptivists. Comments welcome!

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